Military applications of neuroscience

cammo_brain.jpgThis week’s Nature has a fascinating and freely-accessible review (pdf) of Jonathan Moreno’s new book Mind Wars (ISBN 1932594167) that tackles both the deployment of military neuroscience research on the battlefield and the ethical issues raised by these new technologies.

Welcome to the world of Mind Wars and the military application of neuroscience, which is the subject of this fascinating and sometimes unsettling book. As the author Jonathan Moreno reveals, the US military has a longstanding interest in brain research and, as scientific understanding continues to advance, so does its appeal to the national security establishment.

The Department of Defense conducts much of its research in secret, and some of it would probably fare poorly in open peer review – for example, the military continued to fund psychic research until 1995 – but with an annual research and development budget of at least $68 billion, it can presumably afford to leave no stone unturned.

Partly because its activities are more visible, Moreno focuses especially on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which supports unclassified academic research with potential military applications. DARPA has a distinguished record of supporting innovation, including the Internet, so its involvement in brain research must be taken seriously.

Nature has put some relevant links online from the review, so you can follow up the topic if you’re interested.

There’s also more about the book, including some (very) brief excerpts and a Q&A with the author on the Dana website.

It’s also worth noting that Moreno will be discussing the topic and his new book on November 28th in New York, at an event hosted by The New York Academy of Sciences.

pdf of review of Mind Wars (thanks Tom!).
Link to info on book from Dana Press.
Link to details of Moreno ‘Mind Wars’ talk in New York.

The madness of King Eadbald


“A Saxon king of the early seventh century, Eadbald, was described in the language of the early eighth century as troubled by frequent fits of insanity and ‘by the attack of a foul spirit’ after marrying his late father’s second wife.

But he had also rejected Christianity which his father Ethelbert had taken up, and the missionaries in Kent were going through a difficult period; so, apart from the meaninglessness of the description, some character assassination may be involved in the record.”

From p48 of Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain (ISBN 0708305628) by Basil Clarke.

Nature Neuroscience launches monthly podcast

NatureNeuroscienceOct2006.jpgI just discovered from The Neurophilosopher’s blog that Nature Neuroscience have launched a (presumably monthly) podcast where the latest in neuroscience research is discussed.

It seems that it will only discuss research published in Nature journals, however.

This may seem surprising to those unaware how science and scientific publishing works, but it makes good business sense for Nature.

Scientific journals make money on the basis of advertising (a large part) and readership (through charging for subscriptions, online access and single article reprints).

They vie to be the most prestigious journals by having the widest readership and attracting the best research for publication.

In turn, scientists’ careers are often based on getting their research published in the most prestigious journals because this should guaruntee it is widely read and has the greatest impact.

Having a journal-sponsored podcast that might discuss and, therefore, promote, any of the articles in the publication gives scientists an extra reason to submit their work to the journal.

Whereas discussing research from competitors’ journals would just be giving free advertising to commercial rivals.

That said, the Nature journals are among the most prestigious science publications, and a monthly discussion even of their articles alone is likely to keep you informed of some of the most important developments in neuroscience.

Link to Nature Neuroscience podcast.

2006-10-27 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


New Scientist reports that a new surveillance system can distinguish between violent and non-violent behaviour (with video).

Cognitive Daily asks ‘do deadlines help procrastinators?’

Review of ’23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience’ from American Scientist. What is systems neuroscience?

Damage to the brain could unleash artistic talent, reports ABC News, covering a new paper in medical journal Neurology.

Paper in Science on ‘stereotype threat’ (see previously on Mind Hacks) affecting women’s maths performance is covered by Seed Magazine.

Forbes magazine lists some of the physical and psychological benefits of sex.

More on inheriting facial expressions: The Economist has a well-written article on the recent ingenious study.

Review of ‘For Matthew and Others: Journeys with Schizophrenia’ art exhibition from The Australian.

People who read more fiction have higher levels of empathy, reports Frontal Cortex.

Developing Intelligence has a fantastic review of neuroscience-of-self book ‘I of the Vortex’.

UK has ‘lowest ever’ suicide rate, reports BBC News.

Anti-sleep drugs for UK troops

alert_eye.jpgSurely this isn’t news? BBC News is reporting that ‘stay-up-forever’ drug modafinil has been tested on UK troops.

The drug, which prevents sleep and increases cognitive performance but does not cause the same ‘wired’ effect as amphetamines, has been used by the US military for several years.

One of the problems with amphetamines, the previous military drug of choice, is that over time it vastly increases the risk of paranoia and psychosis (obviously not good for heavily armed soldiers), whereas the risk with modafinil seems, at least at this stage, to be minimal in comparison.

It has been previously reported that the UK Ministry of Defence bought thousands of doses of modafinil prior to 2004.

It’s hardly a shock that they’ve been given to troops in an attempt to give them a cognitive edge over the opposition.

Did anyone really think that they were bought in case there was a massive influx of soldiers with narcolepsy?

One bizarre aspect, however, is the BBC News story reports that modafinil pills are called ‘zombies’ on the “drug scene”.

Modafinil is noted as having virtually no pleasurable effects, making it a poor candidate for a recreational drug. Furthermore, there seems to be few references to the nickname on the net.

Brain warehouse

brain_warehouse_image.jpgThe UK government have launched a campaign to warn 11-15 year-olds about the dangers of cannabis, using an ironic and lighthearted website and advert.

They’re both based around the concept of a high-street retailer for new brains. Teenagers who have trouble with their brains due to cannabis use can trade theirs in for new models.

These include the ‘Freakout-Free X50’ (Free yourself from paranoid freakouts once and for all with this little beauty!) and the ‘Spewstopper’ (Whether smoking a spliff or a bong, say no to embarrassing puking sessions!).

The comical tone is obviously meant to connect with teenagers who are immune, on principal, to dire warnings about partaking in illegal drugs.

Two UK mental health charities have criticised the adverts for not warning about the more extreme and unlikely outcomes of cannabis use (such as schizophrenia) and even for potentially increasing the popularity of cannabis.

Actually, it seems that the adverts are focusing much more on the short-term unpleasant effects, perhaps, as these are the least socially acceptable among teenagers.

Maybe this is in the hope that this will reduce consumption and have a knock-on benefit for mental health.

Like many drug campaigns I remember from teenage years, my concern is that this campaign is still a little unbalanced.

I suspect not describing the positive as well as the negative aspects of drugs leads people to disbelieve most things they’ve heard from a particular source if they subsequently take something and thoroughly enjoy themselves, contrary to the ‘received wisdom’.

This is purely speculation on my part, however, as I’ve had little luck tracking down relevant research, so the results of any studies on the effectiveness of different types of drug education would be particularly interesting and gratefully received.

Link to Brain Warehouse website.